This is the story of what happened when both the Creative Coders and the LEGO Leaders advanced to the England and Wales National Final of the 2022 FIRST LEGO League – one of the largest STEM competitions in the world – where they competed against the 64 best teams in the country.
(As you read this story, please remember you can click on any photo to view it full-size. You may also want to grab a drink, this isn’t a short post! – Mr W)
How did our teams get to the finals?
To earn their place in the National Finals, the teams had to perform exceptionally well at the Cornish Regional Final. Creative Coders came first overall at this event and immediately qualified for the Nationals – but the journey for LEGO Leaders wasn’t quite as straight forward…
LEGO Leaders had an outstanding score of 345 points in their Robot Games at the Cornwall Final, but ended up finishing in fourth overall (still an INCREDIBLE achievement!). Sadly, one of the top three teams weren’t able to make it to Harrogate for the National Finals and LEGO Leaders were asked to attend in their place as the team with the highest Robot Games score in Cornwall.
With both of their places confirmed the only thing that stood between the children and the finals was a very, very long coach trip!
Yesterday two teams of our Year 5s took part in the Cornwall finals of the FIRST LEGO League Competition. For months these teams have been working hard with coding, building, researching, creating, designing, innovating and presenting ideas. All of that hard work was celebrated yesterday in two incredible
We left Penpol bright and early on Friday morning, the children (and staff!) very kindly giving up part of their Half Term holiday to take part. After some early excitement where the team discovered their t-shirts (featuring some awesome LEGO Minifigure designs created by Ethan and his dad) we all got settled on the coach for what was to be a ten hour trip.
Thankfully we’d been able to get a coach with USB ports, which meant that children and adults alike were both able to enjoy some movies, TV programs and games on the journey (which helped pass the time very nicely!).
We met up with the team from Boscastle School on the way, as they had also qualified for the Finals and were joining us on the journey.
"It was amazing to go up on the coach with my friends, because it’s just an extraordinary experience and I’m so happy to have done it. Everyone was such great fun and I enjoyed spending time with everyone."
After a couple of service station stops we made it to our hotel just outside of Leeds Bradford Airport and the first stage of our adventure was complete.
We checked into our rooms and met up with everyone in the restaurant for dinner. The teams all sat together to discuss tactics, the dinner options (and to create some memes on their iPads!). It was great seeing them all enjoying their time away whilst at the same time building friendships and bonds that will hopefully last well beyond this weekend.
The evening ended with the teams going off to practice their Innovation Project and Robot Design presentations one last time before bed.
The following morning we were once again up bright and early, meeting at 7am for a cooked breakfast to fuel us all for the day. The children looked very smart in their team t-shirts and all sported the Cornish flag in the form of a pin badge (made by Mr Woolcock’s very kind neighbour Adam!).
Between trips to the breakfast buffet we had a few moments to discuss our packed schedule for the day with the two teams. Then it was time to get back onto the coach and head into Harrogate itself.
We were ready to go to the Finals!
"It was when I woke up in the morning and there was a table - a very large table - and it had sausages and bacon and other stuff I can’t even remember. As soon as I saw that bacon it was the best moment ever. I just grabbed about ten stacks. You know it’s going to be a beautiful day when you’ve just eaten that breakfast!"
What happened on the day?
The venue for the competition, Harrogate Convention Center, was absolutely huge. We were all struck by its size and impressive design when we got off the coach. Naturally we had to pose for some team photos before going any further!
When we made it into the venue, we soon discovered that it was even more impressive from the inside. A huge stage with LED screens and stage lighting dominated the first room, along with about 2,000 chairs all lined up and ready for the competitors and their supporters to take their places before the Opening Ceremony.
"On Saturday morning I was absolutely terrified but also very excited. Going to that huge place as a team on the coach was amazing, but yeah, I was terrified too! But we all has such a fun time together and now I'd love to do it all again!"
Before we sat down we decided it would be sensible to find our ‘Pit Area’. This was to be our base of operations for the day and was decked out with water bottles, lanyards, badges, stickers and all sorts of other goodies for the teams to enjoy when we got there.
This was a space we’d come back to throughout the day as we regrouped and planned our next steps.
After this we headed straight back into the main auditorium for the Opening Ceremony and managed to nab some great seats near the stage.
James B and Sienna were taken off to one side by the organisers as they were to be the teams flag bearers for the ceremony – getting their moment in the spotlight as they represented their teams on the main stage stage.
"It was so surreal and amazing being on stage for the opening event. Seeing how many people were in the audience made everything feel so real! When we first found out we’d won I felt like it was all a dream, but being on the stage and seeing everybody changed that into a reality."
After some very exciting build-up (and a chance to meet the hosts for the day: Maddie Moate, Greg Foot and Tom Deacon), the children were ready to leap into action.
Both teams had to be at certain places at pre-determined times throughout the day and in order to make this work it was decided that the teams would go off separately. Creative Coders teamed up with Mr Woolcock and Mr Pollard and LEGO Leaders worked with with Paul, Chelsea (our mentor from RNAS Culdrose) and Miss Ball.
"When I met Maddie Moate, I don’t really have many words to describe it, but I was speechless. She was so friendly!
After going to this event I really want to try and become an engineer or a coder. Those jobs sound really exciting and I'd love to try them!"
The first stop for both teams was the Practice Tables, which would prove the first chance to test their robots and code to ensure that everything worked on the day. As neither team had been able to have a run through with their Robot element over Half Term, this time to practice was invaluable.
Thankfully everything worked well for both teams and the robots (and teams!) were all ready for their big moment.
Part 1: The Robot Games
It was then time for the first of three rounds of the Robot Games. I think this was the moment that it really hit home to us all just how different this was going to be compared with competing virtually in the Cornwall competition.
Each team headed to the main arena and line up on their designated number. Then they were escorted to their competition table (one of sixteen all set up and ready to go) and introduced to the two referees that were to score and monitor their match. Each team was battling head-to-head against a second team from another school and they had two and a half minutes to score as many points with their robot as possible.
However, I don’t think any of us realised just how intense the competition room would be and how much of an impact that atmosphere and energy would have on our teams performances…
It was a really busy place and so it was very stressful at times, but we all supported each other and carried each other through. Most of all we all had fun doing it! It definitely felt very, very nerve-racking watching the Robot Games team compete, but in the end we were all ecstatic about the scores we managed to get.
Rather than crumble under the pressure, the children turned it into excitement and eager anticipation. Before each Robot Games match the hosts came around to meet the teams and have a chat with them about their game strategy, further adding to the excitement in the air.
When all the referees were ready (and their white flags were held high in the air) it was time for the countdown. Three. Two. One. LEGO!
Two and a half minutes was all that stood between the teams and their chance of glory.
There is no doubt that this was an incredibly tough part of the day. A millimetre out with positioning the robot cold spell disaster. One slight change of course could have a knock on effect on the second part of a mission. Under the pressure of a live audience, referees and dozens of other teams competing at the same time, it was inevitable that mistakes would be made by all teams competing.
But perhaps what was surprising was the way our teams dealt with these setbacks. Instead of throwing in the towel or walking away they kept on going. They battled through. They regained their composure and re-focussed their energies onto the next match. They didn’t let anything stop them – even when it seemed like everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong.
The children (and parents!) supporting from behind the line were willing the Robot Operators on with every fibre of their being and it was clear that the teamwork and perseverance paid off for both teams.
"My favourite memory was running around the competition centre with all my friends and of course taking photos with all our medals and my proudest moment was probably the presentations and doing the robot games - especially the last run of the robot games because that was really fun."
Through the day each team would come back here three times to try and set their highest score – all the while keeping an eye on the live scoreboard around the venue to see where they were currently positioned.
The final scores for both teams were as follows…
As you can see both teams saved their very best performance for last – earning an incredible 250 and 270 points each! These scores were enough to ensure that both teams placed in the top half of the entire Final, beating dozens of other teams including both Primary and Secondary students.
"My proudest moment at the competition is probably when we were announced on the scoreboard that we came 24th overall. I just felt amazed because out of all the UK there were 2,400 teams and in the finals there were still 64 teams. I feel so proud of where we came!"
To top it all off the final matches for both of our teams were played on the ‘live stream tables’ which meant that family and friends could watch both of their final runs from home! And excitingly they’re both available to watch again below so you can see just how well each team performed in this aspect of the competition.
Part 2: Core Values
Whilst the Robot Games certainly is very exciting, it only accounts for 25% of a teams total score. An equally important element of the competition is known as Core Values and is judged throughout the whole day by the referees, judges and other volunteers working at the event.
They are trained to keep an eye out for teams demonstrating the six Core Values, which are:
we explore new skills & ideas
we use creativity and persistence to solve problems
we apply what we learn to improve our world
we respect each other and embrace our differences
we are stronger when we work together
we enjoy and celebrate what we do!
These are all really important qualities for the teams to embody and both Creative Coders and LEGO Leaders displayed all six in bucket-loads during the day.
From the way they interacted with and greeted other teams to the way they asked questions and enquired about people they met, throughout the day the judges were very impressed by their Core Values.
I could share many examples of particular moments throughout the day where the children embodied these different skills, but one value that resonated particularly strongly on the day was without a doubt the value of Teamwork. The whole day was very busy and full of high-pressure situations that could have proven overwhelming. However, when one of these situations arose, the teams were both incredible at supporting each other by reassuring their teammates and ensuring that everybody was able to perform to the very best of their ability.
It was great because everyone bought something special to our team. For example Ernie has lots of energy, then Piran just brings a real sense of fun into everything. Felix had some really creative ideas throughout the day and Georgia gets very excited (just like Ernie).
During the Innovation Project Sienna had a really hard job of being the link between managing both sub-teams but handled it incredibly well and Amélie had some really innovative ideas for the presentation which really bought it to life.
The Core Values are scored on a scale of 1 to 4 for each value where:
After the event we were able to view the children final scores for Core Values and we were blown away by how well they did.
Part 3: Innovation Project
The next element of the competition (worth another 25% of the marks) was the Innovation Project. This 5 minute presentation required the teams to explain their solution to a serious global problem – this year linked to the theme of Cargo.
The children were required to research their problem, reach out to experts in the field and then plan and create a viable and creative solution to the problem. You might think that alone is pretty tricky – but that’s nothing compared to presenting all of that to a panel of complete strangers… the judges!
When the time came for the Presentations, the teams had to assemble outside of the judging area and wait patiently for their turn. We were then led into a small room in the convention centre where two judges were waiting to meet us. The children were really interested in finding out who the judges were and what their background was, especially when they found out one of the judges had travelled up from Cornwall too!
"I really enjoyed the research element of our project. For example we searched for information on the internet and then that led to more ideas which we hadn’t thought of. That led to more searches and before we knew it we’d learnt loads! It was very good because we were able to write about it and present it to everyone. It was actually quite shocking going to a supermarket to see the plastic in real life. I decided to go later in the evening to see it all as the pallets were unpacked. I was surprised how much plastic was used in just one night - it was quite weird to see it happen."
The presentations had all been very well practiced in the build-up to the competition, whether that was at school, through voice notes on Showbie over Half Term, on the coach journey or even the night before the competition after dinner. This meant both teams knew their lines, knew their cues and were ready to go.
So, you might be wondering what the presentations were about and what problems they chose to solve? Look no further than this handy little guide…
Packages are delivered to shops, warehouses and distribution centres in cardboard boxes on large pallets. But these pallets are wrapped in metres and metres of plastic shrink wrap to stop them falling off. This is not environmentally friendly at all!
The team researched different methods of securing boxes to pallets, including building an Earthquake Simulator to shake their 3D-Printed pallets. They settled on using paper and bungie cords to secure boxes as these could be reused time and time again.
Feedback from the Judges
The judges said that the presentation was very interesting and that they chose a great topic. They also really liked positive energy and their Creative Coders song which grabbed the judges attention.
In many countries Donkeys are used to carry heavy and unbalanced loads of cargo. These donkeys are often underfed, maltreated and end up getting badly injured by carrying too much weight.
The team considered a number of alternatives to donkeys, but eventually decided that cost would be a prohibitive factor. They settled on trying to improve the standard of life for these hard working donkeys by creating a ‘code of conduct’ for donkey owners which encouraged them to treat their animals with more care and respect.
Feedback from the Judges
The judges were really impressed with how the team approached different organisations for research and how they went for a very novel idea for their project – big marks for ‘thinking outside of the box’.
As you can see the judges were impressed with both the Creative Coders and the LEGO Leaders, remarking on how confident both teams were and how well they presented their problems.
The presentations themselves were scored by both judges using the same 1-to-4 scale as the Core Values. The points the teams earned are as follows:
Innovation Project Scoring
Part 4: Robot Games Presentation
The last part of the competition was the Robot Design Presentation. This name is slightly deceptive as it isn’t just about the robot that the teams have built. Yes it is largely about this, but it is also a chance to share the story that the children have been on since starting in their teams back in October. This is a chance to share their learnings, their new skills, their strategies, plans and anything else that they want to with the judges.
"My proudest moment of the LEGO competition was when we were all doing the presentations. I enjoyed that we all did the presentations together as a group because we were a great team and we had a really important message to share in our innovation project."
Both teams were able to eloquently explain the rationale that went into their projects, the reasons they chose certain challenges first and how they crafted individual attachments for the robots.
The children also shared personal stories of what the competition meant to them. From making new friends to developing new skills, missing holidays to giving up lunchtimes to work on their presentations. Everyone had a story to tell and the judges were interested to hear just what it meant to everyone who took part.
"At first we were all really worried about the judges because we didn't know who they'd be - what if they were scary?! It was really nerve-racking learning our lines because we didn't want to make a mistake and get it wrong. On the day it all came together and the judges were really nice and helpful and we all smashed our lines.
I felt so pleased that we'd done an absolutely amazing job of our presentations."
The Robot Design presentations themselves were scored by both judges using the same 1-to-4 scale as the Core Values and Innovation Project. The points the teams earned are as follows:
Robot Design Presentation Scoring
What happened after the teams had competed?
After all of the competition elements were complete, the rest of the day was ours to explore and meet other teams. We got to watch the Knockout Stages of the Robot Games, where the very best teams in the country pitted their robots head-to-head in a winner stays on tournament.
These robots were incredible to watch and were earning scores far beyond anything we even thought possible. I hope the teams have picked up plenty of ideas there for next years robots!
There was also the opportunity to explore a whole variety of different STEM experiences from different companies and employers who all have a focus in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths sector. The children visited dozens of stalls to find out what each one had to offer and to explore different types of robotics that are used in the real world.
It was very inspiring to see just how far a career in engineering or coding could take our students and the children responded to these stalls with great interest.
At the end of a very, very busy day we finally returned to where it all started in front of the stage. Here the closing ceremony was held, along with awards for the teams who won in the different categories.
This proved a wonderful chance to reminisce, relax and remember just how fortunate we all were to be there in Harrogate representing both Penpol School and Cornwall too.
Whilst in the end we didn’t win any awards at the National Finals the experience alone more than made the trip worth it.
I think it would be safe to say that the children who left this event in Harrogate were not the same ones who boarded the coach from Penpol School on Friday morning.
They were more tired, yes. But they were also more confident, more resilient and better friends than ever before. This shared experience will hopefully be one that stays with them for a very, very long time.
They have truly done themselves and all of us at Penpol School proud.
"I have learnt to always enjoy what you do, especially when it’s not going so well. Always be happy and see the positives in everything.
I think this whole experience will help me in the future because I really want to be a coder and make games. So by doing hard code on Cookies and Beans and learning teamwork by being a part of my team - I think these skills will really help me."
Thank you to our supporters
This whole event simply wouldn’t have been possible without some very kind and generous local supporters. As you may have seen on the backs of the team t-shirts, we were sponsored by the wonderful people at Philps Pasties, TigerX and Birdies Bistro. They very kindly help us pay for the experience and without that, the children wouldn’t have been able to take part in such an awesome opportunity.
I’d also like to thank the parents and families of our team members for being so accommodating and supportive, helping us organise such a massive trip in just two weeks. Thank you all.